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Contamination in Canada sounds warning to UK

(Saturday, July 19, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Suzanne Goldenberg, the Guardian, 07/18/03: Under the vast bowl of a clear summer sky, cheery yellow splashes of canola light up the prairies for miles. The sight of it makes Reg Stow's heart sink. When Reg and his wife, Beverley, started farming as a young Canadian couple in the early 1960s, canola, as the local version of oilseed rape is known, was the crop they could count on. If the bottom dropped out of the price on the other crops they were growing on their 2,300 acres in the fertile farmlands of Manitoba, they always knew that canola would come through for them. No more.

The Stows resisted the introduction of genetically modified canola seven years ago, unlike their neighbours. But it started growing in their fields anyway, as the pollen was brought in by the wind from surrounding farms. There is no distinguishing their fields from those of their neighbours.

Now Canada is awaiting the second wave of biotech with Monsanto, the creator of GM canola, working to put a GM version of wheat on the market. The Stows see it as a disaster in the making.

"A company should not be able to come in and wreck a livelihood," said Mr Stow. "If they do here with wheat what they've already down with canola, then we are lost."

British farmers have been looking to Canada as the closest parallel to UK conditions with similar crops and markets. As in Britain, GM has been marketed as providing higher production for lower overheads but it is clear that after seven years' experience cross-contamination with other crops has occurred on a large scale.

In Canada, reservations about the second generation of GM have spread like brushfire. The new strain manipulates the DNA of the most widely grown variety of bread wheat to make it resistant to Roundup, Monsanto's leading weedkiller, which accounts for 40% of the company's sales.

Monsanto argues that GM wheat will cut costs and increase yields by simplifying weed control. It could enter production by 2005, pending government approval.

But the major producer associations - the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, the smaller, leftwing National Union of Farmers, and the Canadian Wheat Board, which exercises a near-monopoly on sales - are adamantly opposed to the GM wheat, branded Roundup Ready, and have called on the government to block it.

Even farmers who are enthusiastic about biotechnology believe the new wheat variant is a step too far. On their relatively modest holding - 800 acres in a region where the family farm can run for 10,000 acres - Linda and Neil McNair believe GM has huge potential for agriculture - just not Roundup Ready wheat.

"When you look at what genetic modification is, it is a speeding up of a breeding method, and it might actually be even safer than conventional breeding methods because it is very precise," Ms McNair said. "But you have to separate the process from the product, and with this particular product we see more problems than benefits."

The uproar over Roundup Ready is rare for Canada, where consumers have unknowingly eaten food with GM ingredients for years, because there is no labelling requirement. As much as 80% of canola grown in Canada is genetically modified.

But far more is at stake now. Wheat is the lifeblood of western Canada, which produces up to 25m tonnes a year - or nearly 20% of the world's supply of bread, pasta and cake flour. The crop brings in 4bn Canadian dollars (1.8bn) each year, and 85% of those earnings is from exports.

If Canada embraces GM wheat, those earnings would collapse because its customers in Europe and Asia have said they will not buy it. "About 82% of our customers say they do not want to receive any GM wheat in our products," said Gord Flaten, a marketing director for the Canadian Wheat Board, which exercises al most sole control over the marketing of Canada's wheat production. "It should not be introduced."

Concerns about GM wheat surfaced three years ago as Monsanto Canada and public sector scientists tended the first trial crops at secret test stations across the prairies. The doubts rose sharply this year when Monsanto applied for Canadian government approval to launch commercial production.

The company has promised to withhold Roundup Ready wheat until Europe comes around to GM crops, but that has not brought much comfort.

In May, the wheat board asked Monsanto to withdraw the crop. It refused, and the wheat board is now lobbying the Canadian government to take into account commercial considerations - as well as the health and environmental implications - when it makes its decision. It is also exploring a legal challenge as a final resort, Mr Flaten said.


Europe's ban on GM products would force Canada to segregate conventional wheat ruthlessly from the Roundup variety. However, many in the industry are sceptical that Canada's aging storage and transport system can offer such guarantees, and fear it would lose its reputation for high quality wheat.

"You can find Roundup Ready canola almost anywhere you look," said Rene Van Acker, a plant scientist at the University of Manitoba, and author of a study critical of the GM wheat variety. "Nobody gives it a second look any more." Agronomists expect a similar outcome with GM wheat.

"Over many years, we are going to end up with mechanical mixing, as well as genetic mixing," said Jim Bole, director of the federal Cereal Research Centre.

The introduction of GM wheat could also disrupt the entire system of agriculture in the arid region of western Canada, where farmers limit tilling of the soil to prevent erosion and save water.

Dr Van Acker said such techniques would be rendered ineffective if GM wheat enters production alongside its canola equivalent, upsetting a traditional rotation of crops, and forcing farmers to turn to different varieties of herbicide.

"A lot of farmers don't realise the precarious position they are in," he said. "The next time we see a severe drought in western Canada, a lot will see the impact, and more will lose their farms."

Such dangers have yet to fully dawn on farmers, but they are clear enough to persuade them it is not worth trying to persuade Europe to change its mind on GM wheat.

"We spent the last seven years trying to convince consumers in Europe that canola is safe, and we have not made much headway, so maybe we just feel it is easier not to grow something than to convince the consumer that it is safe," said Charles Fossay, vice-president of Keystone Agricultural Producers, Manitoba's farmers' body. "If we saw greater benefits, farmers might spend more time trying to convince consumers it is safe. But we don't."